It’s January, and I am still confronting the junk left in the wake of the dreaded Five Paragraph Essay.
Mind you, I have danced with the Five Paragraph Essay on more than few occasions. Early in my career there were few teachers I my building teaching composition at all, and it seemed like a good place to start. And the Fiver is still an improvement for those students whose preferred format is the Uniblob– a mass of untethered words and sentences that spreads out across the page with no regard for order or sense.
To my students, I compare the FPE to training wheels– they may be useful when you’re starting out, but leave them on too long and they become a hindrance rather than a help.
The problem with the Fiver is that it leads a student to approach writing exactly backward. Instead of asking “What do I have to say and what’s the best way to say it,” the student says, “Okay, I have these five paragraph-shaped blanks to fill up– what can I fill them up with.” And that backwardness infects the entire process. As I slogged through my students’ last paper (about symbolism and theme in The Awakening), I can see plainly that they did not ask “Have I made my point and buttressed it with solid support and evidence.” Instead they have asked, “Does that paragraph look full enough yet? It does. Okay, then on to the next one.”
Structure in writing needs to flow from the function. Start talking about an idea, a part of an idea, a step in setting up the discussion of an idea, and then when you’re completed that task, start a new paragraph. It’s simple.
But for all my decades of teaching, I have had to keep answering versions of the question “How long does this have to be?” (which is itself a version of the question “What’s the least I can get away with doing on this assignment?”). The only answer is “Long enough to get the job done.”
You don’t measure a nutritional value of a meal by measuring how many minutes you spent eating it.You don’t turn to your romantic partner and ask, “How many minutes do I have to talk to you in order for this thing to work?” And you don’t determine the quality of a piece of writing based on how many pages you filled up with words.
You cannot put structure ahead of function– unless, of course, the only thing you feel comfortable evaluating is structure. In which case you are not teaching writing at all– you’re teaching Making Marks on Paper. And you are contributing to the students’ sense that school is some sort of Kafkaesque exercise in following odd instructions that are unrelated to life on planet Earth. Oh– and you’re also preparing students to do well on the Big Standardized Test, which also does not know how to evaluate good writing. So I guess there’s that.
So, die, five paragraph essay. Die painfully or quietly, with a bang or with a whimper, but just die. And let’s fill the space left behind with the goal of saying something clearly, effectively, and vigorously, according to the structure that best suits what we have to say.